Fun

Literally the Best Thing Ever: The House on the Rock

A WONDERCREEPLAND OF J’AMAZEMENT. (All photos by Krista unless otherwise indicated.)

Photo via Roadtrippers.com.

Photo via Roadtrippers.com.

I need to tell you about a place. It’s a place so massive, so amazing, so thrillingly weird and kitschy and creepy and utterly awe-inspiring, that I’m actually not sure I can find the words to adequately describe it, and I am never at a loss for words. But this place truly defies human language. I first visited it last month, on a spur-of-the-moment trip with my girlfriend, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I don’t think I ever will.

The place is called the House on the Rock. It’s in Spring Green, Wisconsin, about an hour west of Madison, and I am 200 percent certain that it needs to shoot straight to the top of your list of dream vacation destinations. Forget amusement parks and water parks—go find the nearest licensed driver and demand to be taken to this WONDERCREEPLAND OF J’AMAZEMENT.

Like I said, it’s really impossible to convey its mystery and majesty in words, but here are some basic facts: The House on the Rock was designed by one Alex Jordan, a man who was fond of picnicking on Spring Green’s tall, craggy sandstone formations known pinnacle rocks. In 1945, he started work on a house he was building from scratch on Deer Shelter Rock, a 60-foot-tall column of rock in the middle of a huge forest. People in the area got interested in what he was doing, so he began charging admission to see his building site and completed rooms. And then…he just kept building! Using the money he was charging people to see his growing house, Alex Jordan, always a collector of antiques, kept obsessively adding more and more rooms to contain his various collections. He collected everything, you guys: toys, cars, instruments, nautical stuff, taxidermy, guns, glassware, dolls, circus memorabilia, Victorian antiques—anything you could possibly think of to collect. He opened the house to the public for official tours in 1959 and kept right on adding to it until his death in 1989, an event that did nothing to quell the public’s fascination with the place.

I know that this is the first time most of you have even heard of the House on the Rock, but it’s actually a huuuuuge tourist attraction in the Midwest. When you’re a kid growing up in Wisconsin, like I was, there are school trips to the House on the Rock, and it’s a totally common thing to hear someone talking about a weekend trip they just took there. For some reason I cannot even begin to understand, however, my class never took a trip to the HOTR, and my parents never wanted to go. HOW COULD YOU NOT WANT TO GO TO THE HOUSE ON THE ROCK? From the moment I heard about it, in about second grade, I was frothing at the mouth to go. My school friends would return from trips with their OBVIOUSLY FAR MORE SENSIBLE families changed people. They would try, in dreamy voices, gazing off into the middle distance, to describe the things they’d seen: There were stories of giant indoor carousels and whole rooms full of porcelain doll, of hundreds of instruments that played themselves and endless hallways of miniatures. Apparently there was a whole town, with streets and houses and carriages, inside this house. I heard there was a sea monster bigger than anything I could imagine in the basement. Everything about this place sounded wonderful and scary, and I was clearly wasting my life doing anything but going straight there.

It took more than a decade for me to finally make this lifelong dream come true. But I did it, you guys. I saw the House on the Rock with my own eyes. Last month, finding ourselves with an extra day off work and a car in working condition, Jen and I decided to drive the three hours from Chicago to Spring Green. And let me tell you: WE WERE NOT READY.

Apart from the enormous dragon sculptures decorating the long driveway leading to the building, the House on the Rock looks fairly normal from the outside. It’s a big (but not mind-bendingly enormous) brown house surrounded by gardens.

Image via TK.

Photo by Brian Jacobson, via Dial Urban Milwaukee.

Much of the structure is underground or hidden by trees, so it’s impossible to tell how big it really is until you’re in it. First-time visitors have no idea what they’re in for.

We stopped at the (totally normal and beige!) visitor’s center to buy tickets and pee, and that was when I saw the first hint of the hidden weirdness of the place. The bathroom looks like this:

nwPhS

OK.

The HOTR is divided into three enormous sections. There’s the Infinity Room, which juts out 218 feet, with no visible support, over the forest floor, scaring the crap out of anyone with a fear of heights (hi there) with its panoramic views from more than 3,000 windows.

tktk

Image via La Lovetta.

And here I am inside the Infinity Room. I am pissing myself in fear only just a little. (Photo by Jen Larson.)

Here I am inside the Infinity Room. I am pissing myself in fear only just a little. (Photo by Jen Larson.)

There’s Alex Jordan’s mod-yet-caveman-y original living quarters, lit with dim red lights because, as one of the docents explained, “he liked it that way.” There’s the Streets of Yesterday, an entire replica Victorian town, complete with furnished houses and shops you can look into, streetlights, and eerie old fortune-telling machines on every corner.

lightathome.blogspot.com

Image via Light at Home.

There are indeed, as my classmates testified, entire rooms filled with automated musical instruments, some of which play endlessly, whether anyone’s watching or not, and some that need tokens (they give you tokens when you buy your ticket) to turn on and play. Clumps of visitors stand around lavishly decorated rooms in shocked silence, watching full orchestras play themselves. I think we can all agree that there is something inherently creepy about instruments that play themselves; it was in one of these rooms that we saw our first (but far from last) crying kid.

Nooooothing scary about instruments that don’t need players. (Image via The Golden Sieve.

Nooooothing scary about instruments that don’t need players. (Image via The Golden Sieve.)

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15 Comments

  • Pippermint August 5th, 2014 12:08 AM

    OMG house on the rock! I gave my cousin an old souvenir I thrift-ed with house on the rock on it, along with American God’s, since it is featured in there. One of my favorite places to go, a long drive from Milwaukee, but worth it.

  • Quieta August 5th, 2014 12:32 AM

    Oh man. This is going to the top of the list of road trip destinations. I wish I’d seen your photos before I read American Gods!

  • annughcy August 5th, 2014 12:39 AM

    COOLEST THING WHY HAVE I NEVER HEARD OF THIS

  • Erin. August 5th, 2014 10:44 AM

    This is like a dream/nightmare come true. MUST. GO. THERE.

  • bibliovore August 5th, 2014 11:18 AM

    YES! I’ve gone there maybe a dozen times, usually as a stop between home (Chicago) and wherever I was going north. I’ve had postcards of the whale and doll room on my wall for years.

    Also nearby is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes, Taliesin, if you need to recover from the madness with soothing organic architecture.

  • bunnyscout August 5th, 2014 12:47 PM

    oh man, i read about House on the Rock in American Gods a few years ago and it piqued my interest. the way you describe it the house sounds like it’s got a lot in common with Honest Ed’s, both being huge, slightly creepy, labyrinthine buildings full of weird stuff

  • hannacbanana August 5th, 2014 12:56 PM

    Yes!! I feel like I’ve been waiting for this article since I found Rookie. The House on The Rock is pure awesome, a collector’s heaven. There are so many rooms, and there’s just so much…STUFF! Seriously. So. much. stuff. Definitely go if you ever find yourself in the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin.

  • sublimekids August 6th, 2014 12:10 AM

    oh, my god. reading this kind of gave me chills, it’s like i’d been there before (i haven’t). or maybe that was in some twisted dream or a tim burton movie. i’m not sure.

    another midwest oddity, one i grew up going to, is the st louis city museum- check it out rookies!
    summing it up on their website,

    “Housed in the 600,000 square-foot former International Shoe Company, the museum is an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects. The brainchild of internationally acclaimed artist Bob Cassilly, a classically trained sculptor and serial entrepreneur, the museum opened for visitors in 1997 to the riotous approval of young and old alike.

    Cassilly and his longtime crew of 20 artisans have constructed the museum from the very stuff of the city; and, as a result, it has urban roots deeper than any other institutions’. Reaching no farther than municipal borders for its reclaimed building materials, City Museum boasts features such as old chimneys, salvaged bridges, construction cranes, miles of tile, and even two abandoned planes!”

    i spent dozens of days crawling through the caves and tunnels and slides of this place when i was a kid, but now returning to it from across the world give me shudders. it’s got the same creepy, wonderful vibe described in this article- something unexplainable, unable to even understand. despite all the giddy toddlers running around, the mystery of the place leaves something to be explained.

    • bibliovore August 7th, 2014 11:58 AM

      the city museum is amazing! i get so scraped up every time I go- it’s clearly not the safest place which is rare to find these days. the best places are ones that probably don’t meet building codes.

    • HappyCyclopsKitty August 7th, 2014 9:34 PM

      My thoughts exactly! When the writer wrote about the cavalcade of creepy things and weird passageways, I was immediately reminded of the City Museum. I love that place SO. MUCH. And even though I’m now an older teen you can bet I’m still taking trips to St. Louis to climb around there. You know you’re in a place supposedly designed to be child-friendly, but it always feels a little creepy and dangerous and faerie-land-ish to me. It’s one of my favorite places.

      In other words, I’m gonna have to take a Midwest Weird Places Road Trip one of these days and find this House on the Rock place and maaaybe live there.

  • mangointhesky August 6th, 2014 5:52 AM

    I HAVE TO GO THERE WHY HAS NOBODY EVER TOLD ME THAT THIS THING EXISTS!!!??!!

    http://lescarousels.blogspot.com

  • gabbygabi August 6th, 2014 11:48 AM

    I love that Wisconsin is finally being acknowledged for its creepy awesomeness! Thank you Krista!

  • pizzaface August 7th, 2014 4:40 PM

    I NEED TO GO THERE THIS PLACE LOOKS MAGICAL WHY DO I LIVE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD I HAVE NEVER EVEN HEARD OF WISCONSIN

  • Hani August 9th, 2014 6:26 AM

    WHY DO I HAVE TO LIVE MILLIONS OF MILES AWAY FROM THIS PLACE!

    http://omgsassy.blogspot.com/

  • Kirsten Irvine August 10th, 2014 7:06 PM

    Reading articles like this really makes you realise how important imagination really is